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|Syria: gambling making a quiet comeback
|Lauren Williams in Damascus
| First casino to
open for 25 years celebrated its first week in business with a New Year's Eve
It is 2am and the money
is flowing. The sound of chips landing on the tables chimes with house music
filling the room and the roll of the ball along the roulette wheel.
A shout goes out and the young
lady's number has come up. Under a tacky painted replica of the Sistine Chapel,
replete with gaudy gold leaf and paisley carpets, the new generation of
gamblers are living the high life.
Bow-tied waitresses in miniskirts
deliver high-ball rums to men in suits while heavily-painted women sip
champagne from their positions on the sidelines.
It isn't Las Vegas. This is downtown Damascus.
In a move that is certain to divide religious communities, the first
casino to open for 25 years celebrated its first week in business with a New
Year's Eve party where entry cost £300 per reveller.
It is the
only fully-fledged casino to open in the region, outside Lebanon.
Gambling in Syria is technically illegal. It was banned in the 1970s
when the hospitality mogul Tawfiq Houboubati's three infamous gambling
establishments - the Bludan casino, the Airport hotel casino and the Orient
club - were closed due to pressure from clerics.
minister, Abdul Rahman Khleifawi, allegedly tired of complaints from bankrupted
women about their husbands' addictions, outlawed the practice once and for all.
Now, Houboubati's son, Khaled a prominent restaurateur and owner
of the al-Wahda football club has taken the reins from his father,
opening the new casino under the innocuous name the Ocean Club at the site of
his father's former establishment at Damascus airport, 15 minutes from the city
Unlike gambling establishments in the past, the new casino
offers the full range of games, including blackjack, roulette, slot machines
and card tables.
Houboubati has not responded to requests for comment,
and has kept a low profile as rumours of the new venue circulate in the city.
But a source close to the family and involved in the opening told the
Guardian the casino was operating without an official licence. "It's been given
the quiet go-ahead," said the source, who did not want to be named.
Security is tight at the new establishment. Photographs are banned and
after passing through bag checks and metal detectors, passport details of
visitors are carefully recorded.
Despite its location and promotion as
a tourist venue, staff, who were given three months' training as croupiers and
cocktail mixers, say so far the majority of clientele have been wealthy
Syrians, who have filled the casino from 8am to 8pm for the week it has been
Historian and editor-in-chief of Forward magazine in Syria, Dr
Sami Moubayed, said that in the past the government preferred to acknowledge a
practice that had long been operating "under the table. Historically they
preferred this industry to operate under the watchful eye of the government in
a way that they can legitimately recoup taxes," he said.
establishments , he said, opened and then succumbed to religious or political
pressure several times over the last century, but continued to re-emerge. "I'm
sure the religious establishment will not like it, but personally I abide by
the idea that if the government can collect taxes from gambling then it's
better than sending that money offshore."
Syria is in the middle of a
tourism boom and this year has seen several policy attempts to temper religious
extremism in the country.
The government has fiercely promoted its
secular values. Last year saw a ban on the niqab being worn in universities and
schools, while alcohol sale permits have also flourished.
falls in line with those policies - but we just don't know yet," said Moubayed